Thursday, 25 February 2016

Derek Guiton: A Man that Looks on Glass

I have been dipping into Derek Guiton A Man that Looks on Glass: Standing up for God in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) (FeedARead Publishing 2015).  According to the blurb,
the Quaker movement in Britain is beset with problems — growing secularisation, incompatible belief systems, ideology as a substitute for faith. Add to these the emergence of theologically-based ‘special interest’ groups with their own sectarian agendas and campaigning methods and we have a genuine existential crisis on our hands.

When Guiton talks about standing up for God, one is tempted to ask whether God is not powerful enough to do this for Himself.  Predictions of the collapse into irreligiosity of the Quakers, like those about society at large, tend to be premature.  My experience is that in all churches there are some members who are more interested in doctrine, theology and the nature of worship than others; indeed, I would rate the quality of spiritual and religious understanding amongst Quakers as higher than in other churches I have encountered.  It’s just that because of the lack of a creed, differences (and indifference) amongst Quakers are more obvious.  All Quakers are on a journey, are seekers but at any one time, some are bound to be in a different place, and moving at a different pace, than others.  Snapshot surveys about belief or disbelief, on which Guiton places much reliance, cannot capture the richness of even the most superficial of spiritual lives, just as bald statistics about numbers of members cannot capture the true health of the Society.  (Another indication of the health of an organisation is its financial wealth.  It would be interesting, and perhaps a bit embarrassing, to know if BYM has a balance sheet and what is the value of its assets are per head of membership.)

Guiton dislikes non-realism, the notion that religion is no more than a human construct, but says of mystical non-theism, which allows that there may be something more than ordinary reality, that it is in keeping with Quakers’ traditional perception of themselves as seekers.   This offers a common ground between theists and non-theists: the notion that faith and practice is a path, not a fruition.  I believe this to be true, which leads me to be relaxed in the face of self-styled Cassandras such as Guiton. I believe he exaggerates the threat posed by David Boulton and non-theist network, which far from seeking to split the Society has opened up a refreshing debate on the nature of what it is that Quakers do.  I have found that the debate and my own spiritual journey has tended to move me from a firm atheism, to a universalist humanism and on towards a soft theism but I could not have done this without non-religious and Buddhist Friends just as I could not have done it without the mainstream Christians I have encountered in other churches.  Even so, the state of my interior life at any one moment may have more to do with what I had for breakfast than with a committed relationship with the Almighty.

Guiton has some interesting but passing remarks about the role of discernment in social activism.  I would like to have seen more from him about the threat posed to the Society not by over-extended diversity, to use his phrase, but by political ideologues who ignore the Quaker tradition of ethical capitalism and moral progressivism and who twist the testimony of equality into angry and ignorant words about so-called domination systems.  This trend has less to do with weak theology as weak thinking generally and a lack of disciplined discernment.

God has a tendency to break through in unexpected ways, as Janet Scott pointed out in her Swarthmore Lecture, to which Guiton pays much attention.  If we carry on doing what we do – whatever that is – there may be surprisingly positive consequences.  Is this blind optimism or true faith? There is mention of Keith Ward (p.233), who has made a vigorous case for a theism springing from philosophical idealism.  I cannot find mention of the early Quakers’ panentheist contemporary, Spinoza but unfortunately there is no index or bibliography so it is hard to be sure.

Guiton is ambiguous about diversity, seeming to welcome open-minded thinking while worrying overmuch about its diluting a theological purity and primitive goodness which, by my reading of Quaker history, never existed.  His chapter on the need for a theology is contentious.  He quotes Rowan Williams saying of Don Cupitt that Cupitt ‘gives his readers very little sense of the range of intellectual options involved’ in the debate on non-realism but the same might be said of Guiton.  Guiton praises Robert Barclay, but there is much to dislike about our greatest theologian’s authoritarian sectarianism, which is a neglected (because unattractive) theme in Quaker history vide the shameful and prolonged domination system of disownment for exogamy.  See my earlier blog about this key feature of the history of Quaker exclusivism.

Guiton begins to lose my sympathy from chapter 5 onwards, in which he seems to uphold the experiential basis of Quakerism while insisting on the need for a Quaker theology which would necessarily deny a shared identity to non-theists or even to those committed Friends whose tastes and interests take them away from theology and more towards activism or administration.  He recognises that Quakers have a long history of controversy about their identity while not recognising that such controversies, in Britain at least, have not led to schism.  The non-theist controversy, like the universalism v. Christocentric controversy, will run its course (indeed, it may already have done so)  and its lessons absorbed.  Guiton adopts an exclusivist tone, correctly linking emotional with spiritual experience while seeming to assert that spiritual discernment and fellowship are truly available only to the theist.

The final chapter is on theism and the sovereignty of love but contains very little love directed towards non-theists.  Generally in the book there is little sense of how non-theism, in all its guises, adds to the life of the Society. I look in vain for a discussion of the beneficial influence of Buddhism on Quakers and of how eastern non-monotheist spirituality has enriched Quakerism and, indeed, Christianity generally.  I look in vain for a recognition of how modern psychology has deepened our understanding of human minds and emotions and helped us re-engage with the classic texts of  Christian spirituality such as St Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises.  I look in vain for the point that Ben Pink Dandelion has made about the ministry of gifts and for a recognition that it is not given to some Friends to want or need to engage in theology.  I look in vain for recognition that each of us is on a journey and that at any one point in that journey we may be more or less engaged with the deep things of life and more or less inclined to use God language.

 This is a lively but disputatious book which, in seeming to call for a revival of exclusivism, is overly uncritical of the past of the Society, overly critical of its present and overly pessimistic about its future.

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Year of Mercy; Pope's monthly prayer intentions

Pope Francis has declared a Year of Mercy, to run for most of 2016.  The Year is being commemorated by various events including, at Westminster Cathedral, a Way of Mercy, which I visited on 30 December 2015. It is like a Stations of the Cross in which a path of meditation unfolds the notion of holy mercy. Each of the ten stations along the Way of Mercy is marked by a work of art commissioned for the occasion.  I was struck by the simple, even cartoonish, piece illustrating the seventh station, dedicated to works of mercy.  There are fourteen works of mercy, divided between those of corporal mercy, such as feeding the hungry, and those of spiritual mercy, such as bearing wrongs patiently and forgiving offences willingly.

Many Quakers dislike the Roman Catholic Church. Its denial of contraception and of equal rights to women is indefensible, and the scandal of clerical abuse has revealed the ugly consequence of its authoritarianism.  On the other hand, Quakers will respond to the words from the Bible which Pope Francis takes as the text for the Year of Mercy, Be merciful even as God is merciful (Luke 6:36). The idea of mercy is powerful but comprehensible, easier to grasp perhaps than the vague notion of love.  In Church Latin it is misericordia, poorness of heart, indicative of its association with humility.  Mercy is directed as much at oneself as at others.  To be merciful to oneself is to accept and forgive one's own trespasses as much as one accepts and forgives the trespasses of others.  To be merciful is to practice compassion as best one can, recognising that one will always fall short of the divine standard which, Christians believe, is set by Jesus. The sense of mercy is well expressed by the familiar words of Isaac Pennington (10.01 in Quaker Faith & Practice).

Another initiative by the Pope is to post on video and social media his traditional monthly prayer intentions. The first video, available at features the Pope’s prayer intention for January: “That sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce the fruits of peace and justice”.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Early Quakers and the Kingdom of God

There has been a suggestion that early Friends made a fundamental distinction between the dominant ways of 'the world' and the ways of God's kingdom.  I have looked at that contention in the light of Gerard Guiton: The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God’ (Inner Light Books, San Francisco, California 2012).  Unlike Douglas Gwyn (1995) Guiton takes a theological rather than an anarcho-Marxist approach, and more fruitfully analyses Quakers’ use of language.

The peace testimony is less an oppositionist or revolutionary stance as pointing to the permanent need for networks for resolving conflicts.  Quakerism is creative rather than revolutionary.  For Guiton, central to the Quakers’ salvific programme is the Kingdom of God, or a convenant of love, a pentecostal-paracletal movement revived from the days of the Apostles and a ‘pearl of conciliation’. Guiton refers to spiritual maturity, which well describes the religious virtues of creativity and responsiveness.  The spiritual journey goes from pride to humility accompanied, paradoxically, by a sense of the worth of self and others in a community.  Guiton sees a dynamic of inner and external challenge in early Quakerism which is inherent in organisations and, if managed well, is a source of growth.

Guiton systemises themes in early Quakerism as follows:

v  Faith and worship

Ø  A particular view of prayer

Ø  Silence, waiting and listening

Ø  Obedience to the spirit or Christ

Ø  Confidence and trust in God

Ø  Inward security, donning the mantel of a conflicted person who trusts completely in God

Ø  Apocalyptic hope

Ø  Spiritual renewal

v  Theology and Christology

Ø  Concentration on the light of Christ

Ø  Present and future kingdom

Ø  Salvation, wholeness or perfection or maturity in the spirit

Ø  Repentance and suffering

Ø  Revival of the way of Jesus (see Matt 5-7)

v  Practice within and outside the Movement

Ø  Love of each other and neighbours

Ø  Coherence or agreement

Ø  Righteousness and true justice i.e. salvific or ethical justice

Ø  Equality, inclusiveness and the tradition of wisdom (rejects Calvinist doctrine of the elect)

Ø  Good works as social justice

Ø  Plain speech, simplicity and humility

Ø  Prophetic declarations of the peace testimony as a religious commitment

Ø  The Lamb’s War to deliver Love, a non-violent confrontation with empire

Ø  Staunch refusal to be second best i.e. standing firm

Ø  Rudimentary ecumenism, especially in the case of the second generation of Quakers (Penn and Barclay)

These multifarious themes counter the simplistic portrait of Quakers as following the ways of God rather than those of the ways of the world, a portrait which gives rise to the angry and accusatory tone of the followers of Walter Wink, about whom I have blogged separately.  Rather, Quakers offer a life of faith and practice. A study of their history and of religion generally reveals cultural and social institutions which are the rich output of human creative life and society, of our inner and social lives, not separate 'systems' or ring-fenced areas of absolute righteousness.  Quakers meet to praise, give thanks to God and celebrate (QF&P 6.01; last sentence).  Those who think that Quakers meet merely to point the finger at everyone else should ponder our fine tradition of love and truth.

Karen Armstrong: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014) sees a closer tie than I do between religion and violence.  I hope to blog about her book separately.